Sunday, February 24, 2013


There are people who don’t need to eat large amounts of sugar and saturated fat to get through the dark and dismal winter months. Those people are alcoholics. If you’re not an alcoholic and you’re looking for something to keep you busy while you’re stuck inside for the next few weeks, you might turn to baking, which I’ve done recently. Tate & Lyle plc, the maker of Lyle’s golden syrup, holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as “Sugar Refiners.”

Lyle’s golden syrup is one of those quintessentially British foods for which Americans don’t really have a substitute. The British seem to use it in the same way we might use Karo syrup here—in baking, in sauces, in lieu of maple syrup on pancakes. Maybe the most appealing thing about buying Lyle’s is that it doesn’t appear to be made of corn. In the United States, everything is made from corn. This sweetener that doesn’t rely on it seems like something special to me.
And it is special. The company’s history dates back to 1881, when Abram Lyle and his three sons began operating an English sugar refinery on the banks of the Thames. In 1883 they first invented their golden syrup, which they refined from the sweet and sticky liquid produced by sugar refining. The company registered its “lion and bees” trademark symbol in 1904 and has used it ever since; it’s a reference to the Old Testament story of Samson in the Bible. Between the two world wars, Abram Lyle & Sons merged with another sugar refinery, Henry Tate & Sons. (Tate was the same Tate who the famous British art museums were named after). The company has held a Royal Warrant since 1922.

I first heard of Lyle’s golden syrup a few years ago because one of my co-workers at my first job in Chicago was British. He knew I loved baking, so one day he put in a special request for a dessert called caramel slice. I had no trouble finding recipes for this yummy caramel-filled and chocolate-covered shortbread bar (the name “slice” is most commonly used in Australia, where it refers to a bar cookie), but I did have trouble finding golden syrup. I finally gave up and used corn syrup, and that turned out to be a disaster. The caramel filling was way too runny, and the taste was all wrong. My friend was nice about it, but he finally admitted it was nothing like the dessert he remembered from home.
I tried my first caramel slice two summers ago in London at CafĂ© Nero, that ubiquitous London coffee chain with a shop in Westminster. I’ve wanted to get my hands on a decent caramel slice ever since, and I admit this is one of the royal warrant products I most wanted to try when I began this blog. I’ve been so thrilled with it all the way around—the surprisingly vibrant and beautiful copper color of the syrup when I opened the tin, the smooth and satiny caramel sauce I made on my stovetop last weekend, and the fantastic bar cookies Adam and I have been snacking on all week.

The recipes I pulled and combined to make my own caramel slice hybrid all came from Australian cooking websites. I found myself getting pulled into their quirky derivation of the English language: the absence of articles before nouns; the use of the metric system in the kitchen—which seems so odd to Americans dependent on the oddities of the English system; and the reference to exotic food products like copha, a vegetable shortening made from coconut oil. My Internet foray into Australia made me think about Australia when it was part of the British Empire, when it was one of many distant lands under the rule of the English monarchy.
To educate myself more about British imperialism, I checked out Piers Brendon’s fabulous new book The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997. This book is a tome, which I will either never finish or will owe the Chicago Public Library a large amount of fines for, or both, but I couldn’t resist bringing it home this week. If you think about it, and Brendon has done a lot of that, the story of the United Kingdom in the 20th century is the story of a crumbling modern empire. While Queen Elizabeth has served for decades as a consistent and unifying tour de force for the British monarchy, she’s also watched as her country has lost a good deal of power and control on the world stage. Without this vast empire to govern—and with a fully capable Parliament handling law-making—many wonder how the monarchy can continue to function without it too crumbling, just like the flaky shortbread crust of so many caramel slices.

Where to buy: I ordered my little tin of golden syrup on Amazon. In Chicago, I've seen it for sale at Spencer's Jolly Posh Foods.
Caramel Slice

Shortbread crust:
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour

Caramel filling:
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 T. Lyle’s golden syrup
½ cup butter

1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine butter and sugar, then flour, until the mixture is crumbly and has several pea-sized pieces. Grease the bottom and sides of a 13x9” pan and press shortbread mixture into an even layer in the pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until shortbread is firm but still soft. Let cool.
On stovetop, combine milk, golden syrup, and butter and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer over low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk, for five more minutes, until caramel mixture has thickened. Pour over cooled shortbread crust and refrigerate for 3-4 hours.

Melt chocolate in a double broiler or in the microwave and pour over firm caramel layer. Refrigerate for another hour before cutting bars into squares. Tip: Don’t wait too long to cut these; the harder the chocolate gets, the harder they are to cut.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


I probably already know what you're thinking. Coke? Someone gave a Royal Warrant to Coke? Why? I'm reminded of the Britvic controversy over whether something as mundane as a soft drink deserves royal attention. I'm tempted to ignore this one. Still, I don't know much about the British side of this business, and it's possible you don't either. That could be interesting. So let's hear it out. Coca-Cola International Sales Limited holds a Royal Warrant from HM the Queen as Suppliers of Soft Drinks, and it has since 1972.

Coca-Cola has gotten nothing if not negative press in the past few years, due mainly to research linking sugary soda consumption to obesity. This bad press is having more of a profound effect than I realized. In doing some research for this post the other day, I stumbled upon a graph on The Atlantic that illustrated just how sharply sales of soda have fallen in the past decade. In the United States alone, revenue has dropped 40%.

On Coca-Cola UK's website, there seems to be widespread acknowledgement of the health concerns of drinking soda, diet or otherwise. In addition to addressing obesity and diabetes, the website also offers information about bone health, tooth decay, and other potential problems related to drinking soda.

If you're watching your weight and you don't like diet soda, you may be interested to know that I found a nice little loophole on the UK Coke website. Ever calculated your body mass index (BMI) and been less than happy with the results? Maybe you're using the wrong website. I'm a pretty thin 5'10", 130 pounds, which gives me a BMI of 18.7. In the United States, this is an acceptable BMI; you're considered underweight if you dip below 18.5. In the UK? You should be above 20, or at least that's what the BMI calculator on Coke UK's website told me.

"They're letting people be fatter over there!" I told Adam excitedly just now.

"Well..." he replied.

It's a bit cumbersome to use Coke's calculator if you don't know your weight in stone, but you can use an easy Google convertor to figure it out.

If Coca-Cola's looser guidelines for checking your weight haven't convinced you of how thin you are, of how perfectly fine it would be for you to drink their full-calorie soft drinks as part of a healthful diet, you're not alone. Queen Elizabeth's daughter, Princess Anne, apparently gave the stuff up right around the same time the company was granted a Royal Warrant. In a now out-of-print biography of Anne written by Anne Matheson and Reginald Davis and titled Princess Anne: A Royal Girl of Our Time (I know), the authors share that Anne "used to enjoy a refreshing glass of coke but this, along with other foods like sugar and potatoes, she was encouraged to give up."

Before we get any further, I really feel the need to make a confession. To ask out loud a question I've had in my head since I began this blog. Just who is this Princess Anne? Have you ever heard of her before? I didn't even know Queen Elizabeth had a daughter until seven months ago. With all the attention given to the British royal family in this country, that seems so completely impossible that I've been asking around all over the place trying to find someone who knows who she is. The other day one of my co-workers made a reference to the Queen Mother, and I jumped all over it.

"The Queen Mother? That's a pretty specific reference to the royal family. Do you know who Princess Anne is?"

He hesitated. "Princess Anne?"

"Princess Anne."

"She's...the Queen's...sister?"


"Her aunt?"

"No. Her daughter."

"Wouldn't have thought that."

No one thinks that. In America, people under 40 just simply don't know who this woman is. To get a view of people over 40--people just slightly over 40, of course--I decided to ask my mom about Anne. She had no idea who I was talking about either. Consider also the results of my New York Times query, in which the most recent article about her was from 1992. That’s the year I finished fourth grade.

Anne is actually a pretty big deal in the UK. She makes more visits on behalf of the Crown than any other member of the royal family. She's a great equestrian, as is her daughter Zara Phillips. She’s had her share of media attention too. Her wedding to Mark Phillips in 1973 garnered national and international press, much like Kate and William’s wedding did more recently. (By the way, you have to watch this footage of their wedding. Do it right now). She’s out there in the public eye...but we’re just never hearing about her in the U.S.

I can't argue I have a good explanation for American inattention to Anne, but I think it has a lot to do with the birth of Prince Andrew in 1960. Before his birth and after her mother's coronation, Anne was second in line to the British throne, after her brother Charles. Matheson and Davis refer to Andrew as "the baby who was to change the whole course of her life." At that time, the law dictated the a male heir would trump a female heir, so Anne was off the hook, so to speak. In America it seems we only ever hear news of those directly in line to take over the throne, while the other members of the royal family live way back in the shadows. Maybe that's lucky for them.

Coke's product line strikes me as somewhat similar. When I think about Coca-Cola, I think about Coke, Diet Coke, and Sprite, but the global company makes a whole host of healthier drinks, including Dasani bottled water, Honest Tea (that super expensive bottled tea you see at Whole Foods), and Simply Orange (love that stuff!). In the UK specifically they make Powerade and Vitamin Water, in addition to juices like Kia-Ora and 5 Alive. See? Sometimes the good ones are off in the shadows.

Where to Buy: You can find quintessentially British juice brands like 5 Alive on Brit Superstore. Kia-Ora seems much harder to find stateside.